It's hard for many of us of the "me" generation to think about being careful and conserving energy, even when it directly affects our pocketbooks. We leave the lights and television on when there's no one in the room, despite the fact that this specific action—or lack of action—increases our electricity consumption, raising our next electric bill. How much harder is it for us to take steps that may benefit our community, or society, but that are harder to discern how they affect us economically?
My wife, Jane, and I have been composting for more than a dozen years. We've been taking food scraps and placing them into a space capsule-shape composter out in the back yard. After all these years, we've never gotten any compost out of the composter. When I look inside, it doesn't look appealing. Yet, despite the large amount of waste we've added over the years, the bottom of the composter has grown very little. We've been doing this not so much to obtain good compost for the garden, but to avoid sending the food through the garbage disposer and then via the wastewater pipe to the water treatment plant. It may not be obvious, but communities use a lot of energy pumping and treating water and wastewater. We may not see the results show up on our bills directly, but the more water that is used and treated, the higher our water bills (which include treating wastewater) are going to go.
About half a dozen years ago, I came across a book on vermiculture, the raising of worms. I built my own worm bin out of an ordinary plastic storage bin, drilling holes into it to let in air. I laboriously made bedding by cutting strips of paper and cardboard. I watered the bedding as directed and dug up worms that I added to the bin. Then I added food scrap. This worked fine all summer long, but then came winter. My wife said that I was not going to bring the worm bin into the house! It didn't matter that the book said that the process was odorless. Or did the book say that it produced little odor? When the cold weather arrived, the worms escaped (thank goodness!) and burrowed into the ground. That ended my experiment with vermiculture. I didn't restart the experiment in the spring, and after years of being left out in the sun, my bin became brittle and broke into tiny pieces when I picked it up.
Fast forward to early spring of last year. Jane wanted to do a little gardening and we thought it would be nice to have compost available for the garden. I conducted research on the Internet. Although some composters promised to have rich compost available in as little as 2–4 weeks, actual tests seemed to indicate it would take 10 weeks. That was a bit too long. So I researched vermiculture. I found a worm bin at a fraction of the price for the tumbler composter I was interested in, so I ordered one with 5 trays. It was simple to set up. It came with choir (fiber from coconut) as bedding. This time I was lazy—I ordered a package of worms instead of digging up my own, although some of the grandkids did help collect some additional worms later on when they came to visit on a rainy day. In no time after the worms bedded down, we were adding food scraps, filling up one tray, then another. Every several days, we turned on the faucet and harvested "worm tea," fertilizer-rich brown liquid, which we poured around our tomato plants. Over the course of the summer we harvested several trays of rich, black soil to also add around our tomato plants. We avoided sending dozens of pounds of food scrap down the garbage disposer, and we were rewarded with trays of rich, black soil.
Of course, the cold weather came around again, and my wife didn't like the idea of bringing the worm bin inside. So it remained outside. Several times we found the roof of the bin lying on the ground near the multi-story worm bin. I said it must be the worms making their getaway to escape the cold weather. I knew, instinctively, that the wind surely blew off the roof—the only design flaw I've noticed in the worm bin design. But I secretly hoped that the worms used the occasion to escape and burrow to a warmer place underground.
Well, I was wrong. The worms did not escape. We had at least 3–4 feet of snow this past winter. It was one of the snowiest winters in the history of the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., area. And lo and behold, guess what? The worms not only survived, but they are thriving in the worm bin!
The bin is made of UV-resistant recycled plastic. It should last years and not become brittle like my previous homemade one.
We had a good experience with the vermiculture last year. The rich humus it produced exceeded my expectations. The tomato plants? You had to ask that, didn't you? Our half dozen plants produced a total of four tiny grape tomatoes!!!! Jane and I may be taking a lot of actions to be green, but it still hasn't reached our thumbs yet!
John Lippert is an employee of Energy Enterprise Solutions, a contractor for EERE. He assists with technical reviews of content on the Energy Savers Web site.